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Same-sex couples ready to make history in Massachusetts

First state in U.S. to allow such unions

Marcia Hams, center, and Susan Shepherd, right, shake hands with a city clerk in Cambridge after applying for a marriage license early Monday.
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The mood is festive and celebratory as Massachusetts gay couples line up to fill out marriage license paperwork.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa reports on what the new law means socially, culturally and politically.

Massachusetts begins allowing same-sex marriages Monday.
Same-sex marriages

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- The champagne is chilled, the cakes are frosted, and gay and lesbian couples across Massachusetts are ready to make history Monday by saying "I do."

On Monday, Massachusetts becomes the first state to make it legal for same-sex couples to marry. It follows a highly controversial decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, striking down the heterosexuals-only restriction in the state's marriage law.

"To have the highest court in the state affirm your right to be a family was wonderful, and it just gave you courage," said Marcia Hams, who camped out in front of Cambridge City Hall on Sunday with her bride-to-be, Susan Shepherd, to be the first in line to apply for a marriage license.

Some cities and towns in the Bay State, including Cambridge, decided to open their licensing offices Sunday night so they could begin handing out same-sex marriage applications after midnight, when they become legal.

At the stroke of midnight, thousands of people broke into cheers as city clerks in Cambridge issued the first marriage license applications to to gay and lesbian couples.

Hams and Shepherd were the first couple to fill out the paperwork.

The crowd around Cambridge City Hall began throwing rice and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as couples streamed through the front door and into the clerk's office.

One male couple carried a sign reading "49 years together" with pictures of their children and grandchildren on the back.

Once the applications are in hand, couples will either have to wait three days, or seek a waiver of the waiting period from a judge, before they can get a license to marry. The decision on whether to grant a waiver is up to each individual judge.

The same-sex marriages Monday will mark a milestone in the gay rights movement, the culmination of more than a decade of legal challenges across the country to laws limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sex.

But social conservatives, too, have been galvanized by the specter of same-sex marriages, organizing in support of a federal constitutional amendment outlawing the practice, as well as amendments in a number of states that would stop other courts from following Massachusetts' lead.

The issue has also become fodder for the presidential race. Both President Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, say they oppose same-sex marriage. But while Bush favors amending the Constitution, Kerry is opposed and says he supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

Adding further fuel to the controversy is the fact that the nation's first same-sex marriages will take place in Kerry's home state.

Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose letting gay and lesbian couples legally marry. But supporters of same-sex marriage insist that majority is shrinking, particularly among younger Americans.

"We've seen a steady improvement in the number of people who support marriage equality for same-sex couples," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a group supporting same-sex marriage.

Narrow court vote gave go-ahead

On November 18, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, by a narrow 4-3 vote, ruled that the law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution. It delayed the effective date of the decision until Monday, to give the Legislature the opportunity to change the law.

The Legislature instead passed a constitutional amendment that would overturn the court's decision, prohibiting same-sex marriages but allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. However, before it can go into effect, that amendment must be passed again by the Legislature next year and go before the voters for approval in the 2006 general election.

The high court refused entreaties by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, a foe of same-sex marriage, to delay implementation of the high court's ruling until voters decide the issue. As a result, same-sex marriages will be legal in Massachusetts for the next 18 months -- but could then become illegal, creating a morass for the couples involved.

Also up in the air is whether same-sex couples from outside Massachusetts will be allowed to marry.

Romney dusted off a seldom-enforced 1913 law prohibiting non-residents from getting married in Massachusetts if their marriage would be "void" in their home state. Noting that same-sex marriages are not legal in any other state, the governor warned local officials not to issue licenses to out-of-state same-sex couples unless they swear on their application that they intend to reside in Massachusetts.

While some town clerks have said they will defy the governor, other jurisdictions plan to ask about residency. Proponents of same-sex marriage say they will challenge the residency law in court if it is enforced.

In New York, the largest neighboring state, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sent Romney a letter Friday, saying that in his opinion, marriages of same-sex couples from New York conducted in Massachusetts would be legally recognized in the Empire State, even though New York does not allow same-sex marriages.

CNN's Rose Arce contributed to this story.

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